Adding a chapter to 'Silent Spring'?


CORNWALL - More than 60 years ago, James Thurber poked fun at his mother in a cartoon captioned, "Electricity was leaking all over the house." She was ridiculed for believing empty light sockets were hazardous to one's health. Today, scientists are saying she might have been right.

The cartoon was used at a cell tower forum last Saturday in Cornwall as an example of how easily we slide into blissful ignorance when convenience is at stake.

"Responsible Tower Siting - It's More Than Aesthetics" was the title of a forum Jan. 12 in Cornwall, sponsored by area environmental agencies and organizations.

A panel of experts showed that decisions about where to put telecommunications towers should be at least as much about health concerns as they are about scenic views they might impede.

Health effects: not a 'freebie'

"This forum is not about stopping towers altogether," said B. Blake Leavitt, a Warren resident and science writer who has published a book about the possible health effects of cell towers. "It's about safer siting. There are significant things communities can do to protect themselves. The decision makers need to know that there are better and worse ways to go about this."

While there is proof the electromagnetic radiation fields (EMF) can be harmful, circumstances factor in. Distance from radio-wave emitting towers, for example, impacts the health effects. But with cell phones and wireless internet bringing electronic signals in closer contact with the body, new studies are being done.

Leavitt calls the radio frequency (RF) exposures we now experience unprecedented. She sees a serious need for more research, stricter laws and safety guidelines, and a public prepared to speak out on the issues.

Cell phones can also pose a safety risk. she said. Drivers using cell phones are experiencing "mini-blackouts." An alteration in traffic patterns on major highways has been noted as distracted drivers frequently change lanes at inappropriate times.

In comparison with some other countries, the United States has done limited research on the risks posed by radio frequencies.

"In Europe, people suffering from electromagnetic hypersensitivity are qualifying for disability," Leavitt said.

In the United States, cities are establishing goals for complete WiFi coverage.

"New Orleans, after [Hurricane] Katrina may never see another land line again," Leavitt said. "The whole city will be WiFi when its rebuilt. Its citizens will be forced into involuntary exposure."

Leavitt compares WiFi to a microwave oven with a door or walls. Like those ovens and other applications, such as X-rays, exposure is carefully limited. But, she said, low emissions from televisions and a host of high-tech devices and their cumulative effects are being linked to maladies like asthma, Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease, autism and cancer. WiFi transmitters found on desks are being linked to eye cancer.

"This is not an aesthetic problem that can be solved with towers that look like pine trees or by hiding antennas in church steeples. We have 24/7 ambient RF exposure for the first time in human history. This is no environmental freebie and we shouldn't kid ourselves about that."

Impact on the environment

Starling Childs, a forester, environmental consultant and president of the Berkshire-Litchfield Environmental Council spoke about the impact the towers can have on other living things.

Childs said he is amazed that the concept of air as a habitat is just now emerging. Researchers have demonstrated that birds can see magnetic fields by way of a photochemical response in their eyes.

He also noted that an estimated 40 million birds die each year from tower collisions that occur during their annual migrations. It is believed the magnetic receptors that guide them to their destination may also be guiding them right into the towers.

"Silent Spring," the 1962 book by Rachel Carson that led to the ban of the pesticide DDT, should serve as a reminder, Childs said.

"The introduction of unnatural radio frequencies appears to be taking a toll on birds. We may be writing a new chapter to 'Silent Spring.' It's ironic that it was the thinning of egg shells that led to the DDT ban. We know that bird feathers are conductors of waves in the air. It's no accident they are arrayed like those old TV antennas on roofs."

Childs denounced the Connecticut Siting Council, in particular, for "shrugging off' concerns about a bobolink habitat at the Salisbury tower site.

"The Siting Council favors ridgetop siting, where we can have unfettered views of what the government has crammed down our throats. Can you hear me now?" Childs said sarcastically, in closing. "It favors monopines so the birds have half a chance with a softer bump on fake branches."

Leaking electricity

It was Dr. Martin Blank who opened with the Thurber cartoon. Blank is a professor of physiology and cellular biophysics at Columbia University.

He spoke of involuntary exposure to electromagnetic radio fields and compared it to concerns about second-hand smoke.

"It's easier nowadays to avoid second-hand smoke, now that smoking is banned in most public places. But EMF goes everywhere. You are in it whether you like it or not."

Blank is involved with research that shows radio frequency produces harmful stress responses in cells and can actually mutate or break apart DNA cells.

"A new, unpublished paper has findings that EMF is activating a particular gene that leads to cancer," Blank warned.

He spoke of a study that shows a marked increase in salivary gland cancer. The affected glands are beneath the side of the face, where a cell phone rests when in use.

"The Vatican was sued because they maintain a large shortwave transmitter in Italy linked to an increase in cancer. They were found guilty and fined."

The title of a scientific paper "Late Lessons from Early Warnings" sums it up for Blank.

"I'm not an activist, but I have no doubt in my mind we have to weigh the data and learn early, and advocate for regulatory agencies to use prudent avoidance measures."

Take action now

One non-scientist on the panel was charged with making it easier for citizens to be informed and effective.

Whitney North Seymour, part-time Salisbury resident, attorney, former federal prosecutor and co-founder of the Natural Resources Defense Council, spoke of his ongoing battle to bring tower issues to light.

He blasted the Siting Council, claiming that it is in league with the telecommunication companies. The council has allowed power outage on towers to be increased without public notice or hearings, he said, and he accused them of "practically laughing" at Childs' concerns regarding the Salisbury site.

"There are ways to do battle," Seymour said. "It's no sport for the short-winded, but you don't need expensive lawyers."

The first step is "do your homework."

Seymour said about two hours spent at either or will allow the layperson to become competent on the subject and educate others.

The Siting Council's Web site has links to lists of every petition and proceeding it has ever heard in each town, as well as modifications sought and/or approved for existing towers.

Citizens should contact state and federal legislators and demand stricter guidelines, said Seymour.

"They will listen and do the research if you demand it - or you need to let them know you'll vote for the other guy."

Citizens can also file a Petition for Declaratory ruling. It costs $500 to file, but Seymour advocated for residents teaming up to file.

A petition was filed recently in response to a proposed Nextel antenna in Falls Village, on property adjoining the state's largest fresh water preservation area, Robbins Swamp.

Among the enemies of safe cell tower siting listed by Seymour is the Federal Communications Commission.

"It's Web site declares cell towers as absolutely safe," Seymour said. "That was based in criteria from 20 years ago."

He quoted his favorite author, Mark Twain: "In 20 years you won't regret the things you did. You'll regret the things you didn't do."



Latest News

Walking among the ‘Herd’

Michel Negroponte

Betti Franceschi

"Herd,” a film by Michel Negroponte, will be screening at The Norfolk Library on Saturday April 13 at 5:30 p.m. This mesmerizing documentary investigates the relationship between humans and other sentient beings by following a herd of shaggy Belted Galloway cattle through a little more than a year of their lives.

Negroponte and his wife have had a second home just outside of Livingston Manor, in the southwest corner of the Catskills, for many years. Like many during the pandemic, they moved up north for what they thought would be a few weeks, and now seldom return to their city dwelling. Adjacent to their property is a privately owned farm and when a herd of Belted Galloways arrived, Negroponte realized the subject of his new film.

Keep ReadingShow less
Fresh perspectives in Norfolk Library film series

Diego Ongaro

Photo submitted

Parisian filmmaker Diego Ongaro, who has been living in Norfolk for the past 20 years, has composed a collection of films for viewing based on his unique taste.

The series, titled “Visions of Europe,” began over the winter at the Norfolk Library with a focus on under-the-radar contemporary films with unique voices, highlighting the creative richness and vitality of the European film landscape.

Keep ReadingShow less
New ground to cover and plenty of groundcover

Young native pachysandra from Lindera Nursery shows a variety of color and delicate flowers.

Dee Salomon

It is still too early to sow seeds outside, except for peas, both the edible and floral kind. I have transplanted a few shrubs and a dogwood tree that was root pruned in the fall. I have also moved a few hellebores that seeded in the near woods back into their garden beds near the house; they seem not to mind the few frosty mornings we have recently had. In years past I would have been cleaning up the plant beds but I now know better and will wait at least six weeks more. I have instead found the most perfect time-consuming activity for early spring: teasing out Vinca minor, also known as periwinkle and myrtle, from the ground in places it was never meant to be.

Planting the stuff in the first place is my biggest ever garden regret. It was recommended to me as a groundcover that would hold together a hillside, bare after a removal of invasive plants save for a dozen or so trees. And here we are, twelve years later; there is vinca everywhere. It blankets the hillside and has crept over the top into the woods. It has made its way left and right. I am convinced that vinca is the plastic of the plant world. The stuff won’t die. (The name Vinca comes from the Latin ‘vincire’ which means ‘to bind or fetter.’) Last year I pulled a bunch and left it strewn on the roof of the root cellar for 6 months and the leaves were still green.

Keep ReadingShow less
Matza Lasagne by 'The Cook and the Rabbi'

Culinary craftsmanship intersects with spiritual insights in the wonderfully collaborative book, “The Cook and the Rabbi.” On April 14 at Oblong Books in Rhinebeck (6422 Montgomery Street), the cook, Susan Simon, and the rabbi, Zoe B. Zak, will lead a conversation about food, tradition, holidays, resilience and what to cook this Passover.

Passover, marked by the traditional seder meal, holds profound significance within Jewish culture and for many carries extra meaning this year at a time of great conflict. The word seder, meaning “order” in Hebrew, unfolds in a 15-step progression intertwining prayers, blessings, stories, and songs that narrate the ancient saga of the liberation of the Israelites from slavery. It’s a narrative that has endured for over two millennia, evolving with time yet retaining its essence, a theme echoed beautifully in “The Cook and the Rabbi.”

Keep ReadingShow less